Monday, March 8, 2010


In the Oriental Dance community, there has always been the debate: Choreography Or Improvisation? Every dancer has her preference, and of course, there are things to be said for and against both sides. Choreography is polished and precise, but improv is more organic, genuine and “in the moment”. Improvisation can look sloppy or repetitive, but choreographed pieces can look robotic, especially if the dancer seems to be counting beats or concentrating on her movements measure by measure, rather than feeling-and embracing- the music.

Choreography in belly dance was not regularly implemented until the last century, until the dance came into theaters and nightclubs, as well as into the movies. Until then, group folk dances were performed with simple, repetitive movements, easy for everyone to master and follow.Solo raks sharqi dancers usually worked with live musicians, and this meant that even though everyone performing had probably rehearsed and knew whatever particular song was being played, it was never played exactly the same way twice!

Once, years ago, on a trip to Egypt, I had the amazing opportunity of seeing Dina dance every night for a week. A friend of mine was working as a dancer in Cairo, and shared a Nubian singer with Dina. He not only took me along to his gigs with Dina night after night, but I was allowed to sit in on their rehearsals as well. Dina’s music and set-list was always theoretically the same, but it never really was. Drum solos or musical phrases were played with variety, and her movements corresponded. She watched the band, and the band watched her, and together, they created something new every time a certain song was played.

As a dancer who came up performing during a time when Arabic night clubs regularly featured live music, improvisation was a necessary skill that I had to learn to use right away. It was pretty daunting for a baby dancer, it was sink-or-swim time.

Even though I would request a certain piece of music, it didn’t mean that it was going to sound like a recorded version of the same piece of music.

Sometimes, there was a language barrier or a mis-understanding… once I’d asked for “Sharouk” but the band thought they didn’t know the song I’d requested, because they called it simply “Saidi”.

Other times, I would ask for a specific song by name, but there had been a “pick-up" or substitute, a new player brought into the mix... and since he didn’t know how to play the song I’d requested, the band would make the executive decision of substituting a similar piece. And then there was always the possibility of error or mistakes on the band’s part: a musician would think the song was going to a chorus, while everyone else would be at the bridge…and so on.

Occaisionally, I would wonder why the “short” taxim I’d requested was going on for such a damn long time, and then I would notice that the whole band ( minus whatever musician was soloing) was taking an on-stage cigarette break!

Even Tribal style belly dance used to be improvisation-only, but today this is no longer strictly true. ATS or ITS (Improvisational Tribal Style) dancers still use group improv format, with a chorus and various dancers taking turns leading, but many tribal troupes or tribal fusion dancers – both soloists and groups are now using set choreographies.

Some dancers are literally scared of improvisation because they have only ever learned choreographies, while other belly dancers (of all genres) firmly believe that choreography exists just so that when practiced, the performer appears to be doing a seamless improvisation!

Either way is fine, but strong improvistional skills will certainly help when you have to suddenly do a performance "in the round", or are gigging at a restaurant with customers and waiters walking around, or working at a party.

The main problem with improvisation seems to be one of fear, of mis-trusting your own skills, and because there are dancers who simply do not know how to apply technique and movement vocabulary in an improv situation.

This cannot be taught per se, because everyone’s musicality and interpretation of the music is different, however, the following exercises will get your creative juices flowing, reduce the intimidation factor and help you to develop your improvisational skills.

There is no better way to learn song structure! If you want to dance to this music, it is imperative that you learn about the structure of the music, which is very different from western style song structure. You must immerse yourself in the music you want to dance to. This way, it will become ingrained in your psyche, and you will feel more confident in your own personal interpretation.

And certainly, if you are not using music from a specific ethnic genre, (such as electronica, Gothic, any type of Western or New Age music, etc.) then you should still listen to the song you have chosen until every musical inflection and nuance becomes second nature.

Try to “see” the piece you are using, and translate it into physical terms. Go through the song once matching your movements to the drums- in other words, keep the beat with your hips and feet. Now, try this exercise again, but moving to another instrument- say an oud or a violin. Then, dance to the piece a third time, and try to alternate between dancing to the rhythm and the melody

Think in spatial terms- full stage circumference, as well as movements going backwards and forwards, on diagonals, and in circles. Level changes count as well- from high to low or vice-versa, and using unexpected changes in speed, such as slow-into fast movements will also add variety.

For example, if you do something on the right, do it again on the left. Or, if you know you will be using certain moves for a repeating chorus or phrase, use them every time, to keep up the continuity.

Know that when you are onstage, time will pass differently for you than it does for the audience. You may think you are appearing ‘repetitive’, but be aware that it takes at least 8 counts for the audience’s eye to full absorb what you are doing. You can stay on the same movement, but vary it’s appearance by turning slowly, or using the movement for traveling or by layering a shimmy on top of it. Your body looks different to the audience from every angle and sight-line, so your movement will, too. Nothing says ‘nervous dancer’ or ‘absolute beginner’ like a series of frantically paced, jumbled steps. Try to relax into the music. As a practice excercise, pick three or four movements and dance to a piece of music using ONLY these movements, nothing else. Vary the look with level changes, layers, direction changes, and by using different arm and hand positions to frame your movements differently.

To allow room for improv, “mark” your song instead of choreographing the entire piece. Decide when and how you will do certain movements, and allow yourself to be free to wing the rest of the song. For example, you may have a series of movements you like to do for a certain phrase, or during the chorus. Keep these "locked in”, but experiment with what you will do with the rest of the song.

You may have impeccable technique, but whether you are doing a set choreography OR improvistion, if your face and emotions are not “dancing” as well, you will not engage the audience’s interest.

Have fun, and the audience will, too.


  1. Thanks, Princess! This is good advice. I'm learning belly dance at home, with friends or just by watching YouTube "lessons." Maybe it's because I don't really have an audience, but I find improv to be much more enjoyable than choreography. I'll keep your tips in mind.

  2. Love, Love, Love this article, thank you, I am trying to bring my dance form onto the next level and this really helped me to understand improv. all great pionts I will practise with the 3 -4 moves in one song to work on variations within them!!

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